Month: September 2017

Grant as the American Ulysses

Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Random House, 2016).

Scholars have recently sought to rehabilitate Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation. This reputation had suffered from attacks both during and after Grant’s lifetime. His military genius was underestimated and seemed to pale in comparison with the imaginative Sherman and the wily Lee. At worst, the story went, he was a butcher, at best he was a practitioner of attrition, that most repulsive of strategies. There were the stories and rumors about his drinking that seemed to dog him through much of his career. Then there was the widespread corruption associated with his presidency. In the last few years, though, a number of historians have dwelled on his military and political strengths. White’s book is the culmination of these latter efforts.

The best part of White’s biography traces Grant’s pre-war path. The reader encounters some old chestnuts (Grant was an excellent rider) and some new stories (Grant was a voracious reader of novels at West Point—particularly those of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “dark and stormy night” fame). What White seeks to do in this part of the book is show what Grant learned in these years and what this period did to prepare him for what was to come. It is in this part of the biography that the idea of Grant as a 19th-century American Odysseus is most patent—he traveled, witnessed a great deal, and grew as a person. For instance, during the Mexican War, as a regimental quartermaster, he learned about the significance of logistics, and having served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the conflict, he made a close study of their leadership styles (Grant preferred Taylor). The biography has an intimate feel here that it loses once Grant becomes a historical figure through the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson during the Civil War. To name several examples where this intimacy is most evident, Grant’s relationship to his father and his courtship of Julia Dent are both interesting, not only for what they reveal about these people and the period, but also because of what they show about his character.

White’s coverage of the Civil War years is adequate but it does not always clarify Grant’s special contribution to Union victory. White seems better at describing Grant’s direction of operations (e.g. the Overland campaign and the Siege of Petersburg) than analyzing Grant’s conception of strategy (e.g. his vision of the best route to Union victory, which included, eventually, making war on the Southern nation). It is in this part of the book that T. J. Stiles’ criticism—that White “details mistakes, but not flaws”—becomes particularly apposite.

That problem continues with White’s recounting of Grant’s time as president, especially since he does always provide the necessary context for understanding politics during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Grant is portrayed as a man of good intentions—particularly in relation to Native Americans and African Americans—but White does not always explain how these intentions, particularly in the former case, manifested themselves in policy (although he is quite clear about how Democrats and centrist Republicans held Grant back on Reconstruction policy). In other cases, White is not always clear about the paradoxes of Grant’s policy, particularly in regard to the annexation of Santo Domingo or his attitude toward the gold standard and inflation. According to White, if Grant had flaws, they were tragic ones; for example, as an honorable and decent man, he had difficulty recognizing the possibility that those around him could be dishonorable and indecent (see his relations with Orville Babcock or Ferdinand Ward). Of course, many of Grant’s finest qualities were on display as he lay dying of cancer and wrote what is widely considered a great American autobiography.

A main asset of this book is its recognition that Grant was an extraordinary man who resembled an ordinary one. What White tries to convey to the reader is that Grant’s strength was not merely a matter of intelligence. It was a moral strength that was founded on his honesty, modesty, justness, and moderation (as well as an often overlooked religiosity). This power, often, but not always, allowed him to take the true measure of the world and what it ought to have been far better than many of his contemporaries. If White does not always provide the necessary background or explain all the details, he is nonetheless on the mark when it comes to understanding the subject of his biography.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Advertisements

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on PBS’ “The Vietnam War”

Like many Americans with an interest in history, One Thing after Another sat down to watch the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s much-anticipated documentary The Vietnam War. While only a fool would judge an eighteen-hour series on the first episode, we at One Thing after Another have never shied away from a challenge. So what follows are some very preliminary observations about a program that is bound to shape the way Americans—and others—understand the Vietnam War.

First it is worth noting the many strengths that jump out in the first episode. The filmmakers have employed a diverse set of contributors to share their thoughts on the Vietnam War. Careful viewers might notice some familiar names: Bao Ninh (NVA veteran and author of The Sorrow of War), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Leslie Gelb (former official in the State Department), Rufus Phillips (CIA officer), Bui Diem (South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S), and Duong Van Mai Elliott (scholar and author of the memoir Sacred Willow). But many of the interviewees are not necessarily prominent figures who played an exceptional role in Vietnam. Rather, the filmmakers rely on people whose experiences were “ordinary,” in the sense that they experienced Vietnam in ways that were familiar to many participants.

The filmmakers have also done a nice job in capturing some of the key historical developments in the years leading up to the “Americanization” of the war. Many viewers will be surprised to learn of the brutality of French colonialism and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to appeal to the United States as early as World War I. The episode effectively (and accurately) depicts the French War to be both a colonial struggle but also a civil conflict between Vietnamese, with Duong Van Mai noting that the fighting split many Vietnamese families. The section on Dien Bien Phu is illuminating, as it captures the against-all-odds victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap over a garrison of French troops. And viewers will likely watch with a sense of foreboding as the French war unravels, knowing that the United States is about to jump in and suffer a similar fate.

But the nagging feeling that the events of the 1940s and 1950s serve as a prelude or backdrop to the “real” war of the 1960s is also one of the limitations of the documentary—or at least of the first episode. One of the first things that viewers may notice about the series is the war does not unfold chronologically. The first episode covers the period from French colonization in the 1860s up to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At various points throughout the episode, though, it jumps forward to recollections of later moments in the war—soldiers talking about going on patrol in 1966 or the domestic upheaval that erupted in Chicago in 1968. The purpose of these interruptions seems to be to shrink the distance between the events that preceded American involvement and the American war itself. The message, it seems, is that events and experiences in the 1940s or 1950s bear a certain resemblance to–or even connection to–events in the mid- to late-1960s.

The importance of understanding the historical roots of America’s conflict in Vietnam is reinforced by the opening segment. The first episode begins with footage of the fighting in Vietnam that appears to be taken from the 1960s. Eventually, though, the images begin moving backwards, as the viewer is transported from the late 1960s back to the beginning of the decade, and then further still to the 1950s and eventually to World War II. Meanwhile, viewers hear the words of American presidents, but moving from later presidents like Johnson and Kennedy backwards to Eisenhower and then Truman. With these techniques, the first episode lays out a sort of “roadmap” to America’s involvement in Vietnam—first the French came, but they found that they could not defeat the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States, blinded by its Cold War assumptions, was inexorably drawn into the conflict when the French left.

There is obviously some truth to this narrative. Frankly, if The Vietnam War is able to teach Americans this simple account of the Vietnam War it will probably be a real accomplishment. But this narrative also has some flaws or holes, and it is only one way that historians might approach the topic. For example, by characterizing America’s intervention as a long, slow slide into Vietnam the documentary may reinforce the idea that the U.S. had limited opportunities to avoid involvement in the conflict. More and more, historians are emphasizing that American officials had numerous opportunities to choose de-escalation rather than escalation. This theme will likely become more apparent in later episodes, as Fredrik Logevall, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the U.S. “chose” war, is one of the historical advisors for the documentary.

If the first episode shades toward a bit of determinism in describing America’s role in Vietnam, it may do the same in its account of the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Viewers of the first part of the documentary may be left thinking that Ho Chi Minh and his followers represented the sole—or at least the primary—movement challenging French colonialism (and, by extension, Japanese control). But such a portrayal ignores the fact that many different groups jockeyed for position in Vietnam, often offering wildly divergent visions for Vietnamese independence and development. In the 1940s, for example, non-communist nationalists allied with the Guomindang attracted a small following. After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to establish an independent government below the 17th parallel. And throughout this period various religious groups, including different Buddhist sects and the indigenous Hoa Hao, offered their own visions for an independent Vietnam.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to make hard choices when deciding what to include in their documentary. While the length of the series may seem excessive to some viewers, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive account of the Vietnam conflict(s) in eighteen hours. You can be certain that historians would quibble with omissions in a series that was twice as long. It’s also fair to expect a documentary written, produced, and broadcast in the United States to emphasize the stories that interest an American audience. At the same time, a documentary that is bound to shape Americans’ understanding of Vietnam will face a fair amount of scrutiny and second-guessing. Fortunately, the dialogue spurred by the series will provide ample opportunity to think about how best to understand the Vietnam War.

No, “Outlawing War” Did Not Work

Recently, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro (both law professors at Yale University) in the “Gray Matter” section of the Sunday Review. Entitled, “Outlawing War? It Actually Worked,” this essay argues that the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) proved far more effective in changing international behavior than most of its critics would allow. For those of you who do not remember your 20th-century European diplomatic history, the pact required signatories to renounce war “as an instrument of national policy” and to resolve all differences through “pacific means.” In other words, it more or less outlawed war. Hathaway and Shapiro concede that the Kellogg-Briand Pact appears to have done little to prevent World War II, but they argue that in the post-1945 era, the behavior of states changed dramatically, largely because countries could no longer establish their right to rule a territory “by brute strength” alone. The authors proceed to get all political science-y on the reader by pointing out the following:

We found that from 1816 until the Kellogg-Briand Pact was first signed in 1928, there was, on average, approximately one territorial conquest every 10 months. Put another way, the average state during this period had a 1.33 percent chance of being the victim of conquest in any given year. . . . The average amount of territory seized between 1816 and 1928 was 114,088 square miles per year. Since World War II, conquest has almost come to a full stop. The average number of conquests per year fell drastically — to 0.26 per year, or one every four years. The average size of the territory taken declined to a mere 5,772 square miles per year. And the likelihood that any individual state would suffer a conquest in an average year plummeted — from 1.33 percent to 0.17 percent, or once or twice a millennium.

Before it goes any further, this blog wishes to signal that it has nothing but the greatest respect for those who study politics. Indeed, any field whose greats include people like Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Tocqueville must have something going for it (although One Thing after Another admits who to a special partiality for Discourses on Titus Livy, Democracy in America, and The Old Regime and the French Revolution). But One Thing after Another believes there are serious problems with the argument presented in this article by Hathaway and Shapiro

For one thing, this argument is insufficiently nuanced. Yes, the Kellogg-Briand Pact played a role in delegitimizing conquest, but the authors have stripped away the context within which the pact could play such a role. Matters could have turned out very differently; in other words, the influence of the agreement depended a great deal on contingency. For example, had the Axis powers won World War II, you can bet that we would never have heard of the Kellogg-Briand Pact again. But the Allies won and used the Kellogg-Briand Pact to prosecute Axis leaders for “crimes against peace” during the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crime trials. Allied victory, of course, was succeeded by a bipolar world and the emergence of the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had an interest in avoiding a major conflict shortly after World War II, and this instinct was reinforced by the development of nuclear weapons. This situation, of course, meant that the superpowers had an interest in limiting armed conflicts (which contributed, among other things, to the era of détente), and this interest made wars of conquest much less likely. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the erection of a liberal world order whose aspirations corresponded with those that informed the men who signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact. But as we have seen in the recent past, that order is a fragile one whose staying power depends on much more than the pact. There are those in 2017 who, like many in the 1930s, refrain from conquest not because of their respect for principles or international law but because conditions are not yet propitious. If the seizure of the Crimea is a harbinger of things to come, the world will witness much more violence and larger chunks of territory will change hands with greater frequency. To summarize, then, outlawing war alone did not make armed conflicts less likely—a host of factors, a number of which had nothing to do with the pact—made this state of affairs possible.

Granted, Hathaway and Shapiro do “not deny the importance of many other causes that have been offered for the end of conquest and decline of war, such as the advent of nuclear weapons and the considerable rise in free trade.” But, they go on to claim that the pact has created an atmosphere more receptive to the idea that “might no longer makes right.” We see this spirit at work, the authors continue, when statesmen use nuclear weapons to deter aggression or impose sanctions on other states. One Thing after Another, however, is not entirely sure how the deterrence of nuclear weapons and sanctions embody the spirit of Kellogg-Briand; these are instruments of force designed to compel our opponents to bend to our will. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was about employing “pacific means” to settle disputes. And that point brings us back to the question of just what has played the preponderant role in keeping the peace for most of the twentieth century—law (in the form of the Kellogg-Briand Pact) or the balance of international power.

Deemphasizing crucial context is one reason that Hathaway and Shapiro’s essay does not fulfill the promise of its title. Another reason is that the authors lose sight of what the Kellogg-Briand Pact sought to do and why wars are fought. The main thrust of the piece’s argument is that the pact reduced the prevalence of fighting by making wars of conquest less frequent; since any power contemplating such a war knew it would enjoy an uncertain title to captured lands, so the argument goes, it often thought twice about engaging in aggressive behavior. Fair enough, but such an argument is a far cry from what the title of the essay and its opening paragraphs suggest. Outlawing armed conflict did not actually lead to its extinction which is what the signatories to the Kellogg-Briand Pact sought to achieve. Rather, it appears, placing war beyond the pale merely added a disincentive to a potential aggressor’s calculations—an altogether different and somewhat smaller achievement. The reason that discouraging wars of conquest did not end all wars is because, contrary to the authors’ assertions, many wars are not clearly about conquest at all. War is a tool by which to achieve a wide variety of political objectives of which conquest is only one among many. Think of the most disruptive and destabilizing conflicts in our own time—Syria and Afghanistan. Neither can strictly be classified as a war of conquest. Think of the major wars associated with decolonization as well (Indonesia, Indochina, Algeria, and so on). It is also hard to argue these were wars of conquest.

Hathaway and Shapiro are law professors, and one can see why they would be inclined to stress the significance of diplomatic agreements (by the way, the Yale Law School Library supports the wonderful Avalon Project, a website with a very large online collection of primary-source documents revolving around law and diplomacy). People who subscribe to a particular discipline often see what that field of study teaches them to see; psychologists, historians, and physicists are no better than law professors in that respect. Law, of course, is only one factor among many at work in international relations. For that reason, we should not oversell its role to the point where it appears to be a prime mover in diplomatic affairs—lest we forget the utility of force, trade, and the other influences that make the world go round.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Goodbye, Class of 2017! Hello, Class of 2021!

For most people (especially in the Northern hemisphere), “Happy New Year” conjures up lacy snowflakes and winter wonderlands. For academics, it means the end of summer and the start of a new school year. One Thing After Another is back from its summer hiatus and ready to start another year. But before we move forward, we should look back for a moment and catch up on some highlights of the Saint Anselm College History Department Class of 2017. In late April, senior Whitney Hammond ’17 helped Professor Sean Perrone induct new members of Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honor Society. Michael Schmidt ’17 was inducted a year late, since he had been in Germany during the previous year’s induction. The other inductees were juniors and as of this week, they officially began their senior courses. We hope one or two might attend a Phi Alpha Theta conference in the spring as Kristen Van Uden ’16 did last May.

From left: Professor Sean Perrone, Whitney Hammond ’17, Ted Boivin ’18, Colleen Gaughan ’18, Jonathan Burkhart ’18, Michael Schmidt ’17, Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18, Professor Pajakowski; Emily Rice ’17 is not pictured.

In May we had a second chance to enjoy the Class of 2017 at the History Department Senior Dinner. This annual gathering of history department seniors and faculty is a great chance to remember past escapades and hear about future plans. With seniors off to law school, to Fidelity’s leadership training program, to graduate school in Education, and to the workforce, we look forward to hearing about future success.

Front row, from left: Professor Beth Salerno, Eric Soucy ’17, Michael Schmidt ’17, Whitney Hammond ’17, Professor Sarah Hardin, Professor Silvia Shannon, and Brendan Megan ’17. Back row, from left: Professor Sean Perrone, Matthew Horton ’17, Michael Ryan ’17, Ginger Gates ’17, Professor Hugh Dubrulle, Professor Phil Pajakowski, Professor Matthew Masur.

The Class of 2017 had the distinction of being the smallest history class in departmental memory. The Class of 2021 may be one of our largest in six or seven years. We are excited to welcome two American Studies majors and about 15 history majors with interests ranging across America, Europe, and the world. We have a student scouted professionally for bowling, a student with Irish/Filipino heritage, an avid camper, and a student whose high school history teacher was a former SAC history major! Keep an eye on One Thing After Another for more stories about members of this incoming class over their next four years. They are less than a week into their “happy new year,” but clearly already excited.

History and American Studies majors (and a few undeclareds) at First-Year Orientation, August 2017

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.